Teaching: broader horizons

October 10, 1997

Cath Cotton talks to academics about breaking down barriers in the brave world of interdisciplinarity

Anthropology at Roehampton Institute London: interdisciplinary teaching across social and natural sciences

ANTHROPOLOGY is a popular subject, but while American students are trained in social and biological anthropology together with archaeology, many institutions in the United Kingdom offer programmes in social anthropology only.

A new interdisciplinary degree programme launched this year at the Roehampton Institute is set to become one of only a handful of anthropology degrees that combine both biological and social aspects of the subject.

Taught in the school of life sciences and the school of sociology and social policy, the programme has developed from existing anthropological expertise in both schools.

"We are putting together strengths and expertise to make an interesting combination for the student," says Ann MacLarnon, head of the life sciences and a biological anthropologist herself.

"From an academic's point of view it covers a huge spread, from molecular biology to the study of religion. From the student's point of view, it offers a really interesting spread and a way into biological subjects for non-biologists and vice versa."

Dr MacLarnon is adamant that while the programme will highlight, where possible, the interdisciplinary nature of anthropology, it will also give a good basic grounding in both fields.

"You have to strike a careful balance," she says. "There is some interesting interdisciplinary research emerging, especially in human ecology. But we have to be careful that students get the fundamentals, not just vague discussion about interdisciplinarity."

That view is echoed by Marzia Balzani, a social anthropologist on the programme.

"Students need to understand the complexity of the field. A biological anthropologist who dips into social anthropology may have a tendency to be too reductive, which can lead to misrepresentation. On the other hand it is useful for a social anthropologist to gain an awareness of the biological perspectives of the subject."

Both feel that students will also benefit in more general terms from the interdisciplinary approach.

"People are more likely to pick up generic skills if they are interested in the degree programme itself," Dr MacLarnon says.

"Anthropology offers the chance to study areas that people have an interest in, but may not realise they can study at degree level."

United States and LatinAmerican studies at King's College London:interdisciplinary teaching across arts and humanities THE UNITED States and Latin American studies degree is a four-year interdisciplinary course housed in the departments of Spanish and English at King's College London.

Now in its fifth year, the organisers of this unusual programme say that it is not vocational, but that it aims to teach students how to think about complex issues from a wide range of perspectives.

Throughout the programme, students master either Spanish or more rarely Portuguese, learn to manage complicated materials, and during the compulsory year abroad gain world experience.

Students combine cultural studies with literature and film and media studies, as well as more anthropological and sociological approaches.

"Today few students follow a specific job pathway," says lecturer Shamoon Zamir. "In the present world career changes are likely. This degree shows the students' ability to use complex materials and to repeatedly retrain themselves."

Dr Zamir admits that there can be problems for some first-year students, but by the second year he has found that students are much more confident in handling different materials.

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